If a few years ago you had said that some of the most prominent evangelical ministers in the UK and the USA would be exposed as spiritual and sexual abusers, few would have believed you, at least not about the extent of it. But it has happened, and it has happened in a context full of other pressures.
Church life has been greatly disrupted by the measures taken to contain the pandemic. Christians face marginalisation and increasing hostility toward their ethical convictions. Society itself, at least as perceived through the lens of the media and social media, has been convulsed by a concern with deep-seated systemic sins, and Christians have been divided in their response. Some have embraced the concern as vital for the church’s integrity and witness, others have opposed it as ungodly cultural Marxism. Christians have begun to look at one another like opponents rather than spiritual siblings.
The recent internal abuse scandals therefore come amid many other pressures. It is not an exaggeration to say that this has left many Christians feeling the ground shake under them. For some the abuse scandals are deeply and painfully personal: a trusted spiritual mentor has turned out to be an evil predator, serving his own desire for self-gratifying power rather than the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some have been caused to stumble.
In such circumstances it is easy to think that what we need to address the crises within the church is something new, something unprecedented. There might be many candidates. Perhaps we think we need a new set of leaders from different backgrounds, or a new untainted great leader behind whom to unite, a new Stott or Lloyd-Jones. Or maybe we think we need precisely the opposite – fewer prominent leaders of any sort and more spiritual democracy. Maybe we think we need a new pan-evangelical grouping or conference to replace the old ones, a new break-away Anglican church or a super-charged free church fellowship. Or again, perhaps we need the opposite: the abolition of pan-evangelical groupings and para-church organisations. The options are many and varied, but many feel the need for dramatic change, for something unprecedented to shake up our broken systems.
My purpose here is neither to deny the need for change nor to adjudicate between the different options. It is simply this: to point out that the Lord has given us what we need for our evangelical future, so that, despite painful circumstances, we can approach it with a deep underlying confidence.
Where dramatic change is needed, it is not something out of the ordinary. Where broken systems need to be reformed, we have, by the grace of God, the means to do it. This is exactly the kind of transformation that the Lord works all the time and has been working in the church since the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. God brings light out of darkness. He gives sight to the blind. He sets slaves free. He kills and makes alive. And not only at conversion, but every day. Even as we once died with Christ definitively, symbolised and sealed in our baptism, so we go on dying with him as we crucify the flesh in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 6).
In one sense this saving and sanctifying work is utterly astounding and unexpected. It is a unique work that only God can do. None of it is what we deserve or might reasonably expect from the Lord. Yet in another sense it is all the ordinary business of the kingdom of God. It is the work that God does in every one of His people, and has done since the conversion of fallen Adam.
Our hope is therefore in revolution, but it is the miraculous revolution that the Lord alone always does when He comes to save and to sanctify. The sufficient basis for our future is not some new, unheard-of leadership or scheme, but the Lord Himself and His ordinary work. He is the immeasurable basis of our hope, the only one of sufficient depth to satisfy all our longing, the only one powerful to change us and our churches.
The means by which He will minister His grace to His people in times of turmoil are therefore the familiar means. Any extraordinary measures are to be in addition to the ordinary, and they must not displace the ordinary as the focus of our hope. If they do, then should they fail – as they sometimes do – we will be left entirely hopeless. Placing our hope in a new set of leaders from different backgrounds will leave us just as vulnerable as we were when we hoped in the old set who have let us down. We must not hope in the human, other than in The Human, the Son of Man.
God is the only one who can and will put all things right. One of the saddest things is to hear victims despairing because they believe that their abuser has forever escaped justice because he has died, as if to be beyond the reach of human criminal prosecution were to be beyond the reach of Justice himself. There is indeed a divine mandate for the punishment of evil by the sword-wielding civil power (Rom. 13:1–7), but even such justice should not be the repository of our hope. The best human justice is only ever provisional, a this-time intrusion by the hand of His civil ministers of the perfect end-time judgment of God Himself. Where our hope is our heart will be, and if we put our hope in the wrong place our heart will be broken, again.
We must not set up the extraordinary against the ordinary as a repository of our hope. And yet we need also to give proper place to the extraordinary, for example to investigations of wrongdoing or changes of leadership. If you read me as seeking to downplay the need for such measures, you misread me. My point is that we must not think that our hope lies outside the ordinary activity of God.
How then can we keep our hope in God and the ordinary means while also engaging the extraordinary where necessary? We can do both by grasping that the extraordinary – properly construed and constituted – is really an unusual, peculiar outworking of the ordinary. For example, a proper call for the resignation of a leader should be construed as part of the call to repentance, the daily reality of the Christian life. An extraordinary inquiry into serious sin should be construed as an exercise of the ordinary power of the keys. Rather than seeing unusual measures as a turn from the ordinary, they should be understood as particular forms of the ordinary required in extreme circumstances.
And not just understood as such – they should as far as possible be constituted as exercises of the ordinary God-ordained means. For instance (I give away my ecclesiology here), an inquiry that may culminate in the use of the power of the keys should be constituted as an exercise of presbyteral authority, even if in some cases it must rightly be conducted by elders from the wider presbytery rather than from the congregation’s own session, and sometimes with wholly external professional help.
Again, a fresh commitment to recruit from outside our own familiar circles should be driven not by a sense of diversity as an end in itself (a secular value which invites the simple response ‘Why?’), but by the doctrine of God’s good creation of all humanity in His image, by the eschatological vision of every nation, tribe, people, and language gathered around the throne (Rev. 7:9), and by a confidence that the entire body has been gifted by God (1 Cor. 12:7ff.), not just ‘people like us’.
Tragically, there are circumstances in which the extraordinary activity required must involve authorities beyond even the wider church. If a crime is suspected, then the matter must be taken to the civil authorities. But even that action does not take us beyond the Lord’s provision, because He is the one who has ordained civil authority.
Construing and constituting extraordinary measures as forms of the ordinary expresses the fact that they are really implications of the ABC of the Christian life and of ecclesiology. Another way of putting this is to say that reasonable calls for change are really calls for nothing more than basic Christian conduct. For example, calling a leader to repent is calling him to do what he did when he became a Christian, and the thing he ought to be doing every day. This is why construing the extraordinary as a peculiar form of the ordinary is not downplaying the need for it. It is doing the opposite by pointing out that all we really need do is to behave in the way the Lord always calls us to behave. This raises the stakes: a refusal to do this is actually a refusal to live as a Christian.
The fact that these things are forms of the ABC of the Christian life in turn invites us to consider that we need simply to be better at the basics. If, for example, the phrase ‘power of the keys’ that I used above puzzles you, then it is time to revisit what Scripture teaches about church discipline. Where problems have arisen because church polity and discipline have been neglected, then they must be restored. If, under the pressure of crises, you have found yourself speaking to others in-person and online in ways that you would never have dreamed of before the crises, then you need to hear afresh Biblical warnings about the sins of the tongue. None of us is excused the basics of Christian living.
Extraordinary measures being forms of the ordinary also reminds us that the church is the primary location of change. The divinely ordained means of grace that grow God’s people in the likeness of His Son operate principally in the local congregation. Our hope must focus there. If we are anguished by abuse scandals, if we worry about the constituency, if we puzzle over the place of our para-church groups and organisations, we must not let any of that make us think that the answer lies outside the gathering of God’s people, as if our great hope might be some para-church organisation or movement. The gathered church is the earthly engine room for the ordinary business of the kingdom of God.
If you are feeling the ground shake under you, do not panic. In the midst of the storm Jesus says to the disciples: ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (Mark 4:40). He says the same to you. Nothing that has happened or is happening around us exceeds the capacity of the ordinary means of God’s grace to save and to sanctify. We can and we should advance into our evangelical future with confidence in the Lord: ‘In quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Isa. 30:15).
Garry Williams is director of the Pastors’ Academy, formerly known as the John Owen Centre, which is part of London Seminary. He is also visiting professor of Historical Theology at the Westminster Theological Seminary, Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and Fellow in Theology and History at Greystone Theological Institute, London.